You Don't Need Audition Workshops

Skip Maloney

You've seen them, wherever you are. Notices in your local arts and entertainment publication, or an area's "alternative weekly." It might be in a Facebook notification, or part of an e-mailed theatrical newsletter that you signed up for months ago.

They're called audition workshops, where, for a fee, you can learn how to put your best foot forward at an audition, be it prepared monologue and song, or cold reading. Never having participated in one, I can't speak to their efficacy, nor, for that matter, can I impeach their approach or methods. Can't really imagine what the approach or methods might be though.

Instructions to do your best? Advice to attend an audition adequately prepared? It's not as though any sort of workshop is going to make you talented if you're not. So if you're talented, even if only a little, and are genuinely interested in working on the production as a performer, you're going to audition, right?  

You're either going to have access to a copy of the script beforehand, or you won't. Is the workshop going to remind you, when possible, to read the play before the audition?  You either have prepared a monologue and song, or you haven't. How much time can be taken up, reminding you, literally, to get your act together?

So far, I've been unable to establish the existence of a problem that it would take a workshop to fix, though apparently, given the number of available audition workshops from coast to coast, there is one. So, I looked around. Didn't research, compare prices, or look into any sort of methodology, just instituted a search for "audition workshops" on the Web. The first one that came up, top of the list, was posted by the California Musical Theatre of Sacramento. On their home page is a tab, labeled Academy, and among nine items listed under that banner, is an Audition Workshop.

Right underneath the " PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS TODAY, CALL . . ." banner is a promotional introduction to their two-day, six-hour audition workshop.

 "The Academy’s workshop empowers participants to audition for any musical theatre opportunity with confidence by strengthening techniques in acting, dancing and singing.  

Participants will learn performance readiness skills, by practicing the process and understanding the vocabulary of a musical theatre audition.  Our skilled professional teaching artists help aspiring performers gain self-confidence by giving participants the tools they need for success, including what to expect in an audition, how to connect with new material, how to approach a cold reading, how to understand and take direction, and how to quickly learn a dance combination."

Very well written. Nothing against the California Musical Theater's Audition Workshop, mind you. They just happened to be the first one the Internet threw at me. Or any other workshop for that matter. I assume, on faith, that the organizations that offer them are reputable, and conduct a decent workshop experience, at a reasonable rate. It seems to me, though, that most of what they're offering would be as useful after an audition, as it would be before one. The only thing that struck me, personally, as remotely useful was the dancing, but that's because it's not a strong point of my personal performance repertoire.

If you are not personally empowered to audition for a musical theater opportunity with confidence, you are likely to be in need of more work outside a workshop than in one. Yes, a person or group of them, who've been around stages for a while, can offer you some technical pointers on how to sharpen what you do, but a director's going to be doing a lot of that anyway, once you're cast.

That's the point. . . once you're cast.

The biggest temptation (and enemy) of the auditioning rookie is buying into the often overly-dramatic atmosphere of the whole process, which, in effect, puts your self-worth as a performer on the line. With some variation, this process is virtually identical everywhere. There are style and scale differences with the audition process, some more dramatic than others.

Among my tongue-in-cheek favorites are the ones where the assembled thespians sit outside a closed door, chit-chatting, or pacing with a script in their hand, waiting for something akin to a royal summons to enter a room. The worst, to my mind, are the larger variations on this theme that have always been known as "cattle calls." I got my first job as a performer/day laborer at a summer stock theater in New Hampshire through one of these babies. Multiple directors, and exponentially multiple performers, who are seen, in true dramatic fashion, one by one. You come wielding a resume, sheet music, prepared to either (or both) perform a monologue and sing a song. A dozen or more directors and producers sit either in the seats of a theater, or on chairs, on a stage or in a room, behind a line of folding tables.

The problem with this type of scenario is that as many as half of these people, maybe more, don't want to see you in any of their productions. You're too short, or too tall, too old or young. The wrong sex. The wrong color. They're making dinner reservations on their Iphones, while you're on stage pouring out your rendition of  "The Impossible Dream" to (if you're lucky) one or two directors who give a damn.

It is an unfortunate, but I venture to say, necessary rite of passage. The trick is to understand the process for what it is. Don't buy into the drama of it. It's a fabrication of your imagination, assisted, unwittingly sometimes, by the production staff.  Ever notice that the set for a theatrical audition is pretty much the same wherever you go? Some basic location differences, color schemes, small variations in the furniture, but there's something about the atmosphere (the entrance routine, for example) that doesn't change all that much from one audition to the next. I don't think it's calculated, really, although I'd guess there are few folk among the production staff who buy into the drama of the whole thing, too.

Getting beyond all of this is easier said than done, of course, and I don't want to go into how long it took me to figure it out, but if someone had just looked at me, way back when, smiled, because they understood the whole  intimidating side of the process, and just said, "Relax," I might be Robert DeNiro by now. . . maybe not.

A great many people who participate in theater from coast to coast are involved in community theater projects. More than in Broadway and Regional Theater projects combined. A great many of the country's available audition workshops are offered by people within a community theater group. These groups can range widely in terms of budgets, but are always made up of members of a community, which means that a lot of times, when people audition for a production with a community theater group, they're auditioning in front of people they know. Perhaps not well, all the time, or in some cases (new director, new member of the community), not at all, but if you don't know them, you either will, by being cast, or at minimum, want to get to know them for future reference.

So you say "Hi, John, Fred, or Mary," or skip the names if you don't know them, and go right to "Nice to see you." Not for their benefit. You're not trying to cozy up to them, hoping if you're nice, they'll pick you. You're entering this audition domain under your own terms. Everybody, especially you, is there to get a production cast, and when you come right down to it, the people behind the desk, or out in the seats, whether you know them or not, need you, a lot more than you need them.

So what's to be nervous about? It's not like someone's going to jump up and holler "Off with his head!!" if you botch a line, or perhaps just simply aren't right for a given role. And besides, what do you care? They can't use you, no problem. They underestimate your talent? That's their problem.

That kind of confidence presupposes a prepared performer. You can't just walk into an audition space and charm people into casting you, as you explain why you failed to prepare a song, forgot your resume, and really don't do too much reading aloud. That, in a nutshell, is your problem. And you don't need a workshop. You just need to do the work.

Read scripts, lots of them, not just the ones you need to read for a particular audition. Pull novels off your bookshelf and read them aloud, with feeling. Know what you're doing, so come audition time, you can show somebody that you do.

Workshop over.

Photo: Children's Theatre of Annapolis